Terrorism Monitor sat down with Dr. Antonio Giustozzi, author of The Taliban at War (London: Hurst, 2019) and The Islamic State in Khorasan (London: Hurst, 2018), for an interview on the latest developments involving the Taliban and Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan. The following has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
TM: Do you see the Taliban’s ‘moderation,’ including communications with the press and engagement with the international community, as a recruiting boon for ISKP, which can attract Taliban defectors and other Afghans who see the Taliban as falling into ‘apostasy?’
AG: I do not see the Taliban engaging with the press as a significant driver of ISKP recruitment. Engagement with specific international partners, by contrast, could have a major effect, depending on the type of engagement, how long it is going to be, and with which countries. The U.S. is likely to be the most controversial partner for the Taliban and joint U.S.-Taliban operations against ISKP could stir dissent in Taliban ranks. At present, other types of significant U.S.-Taliban engagement seem highly unlikely.
Russia and China are other controversial partners, and a close relationship [with either] could have a negative impact in the Taliban’s ranks (especially Russia). The relationship with Russia was already controversial when it started in 2015-16, but if it came more into the open it could backfire. The Russians have reportedly been pressing the Taliban already for action against Central Asian jihadists.
The Chinese have already raised the issue of Uyghurs and the Taliban have given assurances that they will sort it out. Taliban actions against foreign jihadist groups to appease neighboring countries would be especially controversial, because there is quite a widespread sense of solidarity and comradeship with those who fought alongside the Taliban for so long.
The degree to which ISKP could absorb any Taliban dissidents would in the end depend on its financial resources. It seems unlikely that the leadership of the ‘Caliphate’ could afford to substantially increase its allocation of core funding in the foreseeable future, so funding might have to come from somewhere else, probably through navigating regional rivalries.
TM: Do you envision more foreign fighters arriving in Afghanistan to join the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate” or ISKP and, if so, which group would receive more foreigners?
AG: I do not see what use foreign fighters would be to the Taliban at this point, other than an embarrassment. The Taliban would, if anything, be likely to encourage the flow of foreign fighters to al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan.
To date, ISKP continues to receive small numbers of foreign fighters, mainly from the Middle East. The numbers are probably in the tens or maximum lower hundreds per year and expanding that is going to be a problem for ISKP, as the route to get to Afghanistan is now increasingly complicated, risky, and expensive. The use of foreign fighters in Afghanistan would be limited, given the type of warfare ISKP is now engaged in, which is largely asymmetric. Foreign fighters make poor guerrilla fighters, although they could help with managing the ISKP administration and serving in specialized tasks because their level of education is typically higher than that of the average Afghan or Pakistani recruit.
Foreign fighters with certain profiles might on the other hand be useful to export jihad from Afghanistan towards neighboring countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, and Iran. ISKP seems to be trying already to send cadres to Tajikistan, but by its own admission (some months ago) they are only able to send tens per year. China is even harder to enter.
Over the last year, ISKP has been trying to establish an underground presence in western Afghanistan, with the aim of enabling infiltration into Iran. It is not clear whether they have been able to get anybody into Iran from Afghanistan (typically infiltration occurs through the Pakistani border), but it seems they plan to do that.
There are no big numbers of Iranians of any ethnicity in Syria, as far as it is known, but there are Central Asians and Uyghurs, so those groups might see some rationale in moving to Afghanistan, despite the challenges of doing so. Incidentally, Imam Bukhari Jamaat, one of the largest Uzbek groups in Syria, has in recent times edged closer to ISKP in Afghanistan. This could add a further rationale for moving people from Syria to Afghanistan.
TM: The ISKP attack at the Kabul airport [on August 26] that killed U.S. troops and numerous civilians was seemingly predictable in hindsight; what types of targets do you foresee ISKP attacking in the near future?
AG: Much will depend on ISKP’s capabilities. Much of their capacity depended on allies with elements of the Haqqanis (i.e., Fedayin Commission, for complex attacks and large-scale use of explosive), Haqqani splinters (i.e., Karwan Abu Obaida, for targeted assassinations), and Hizb-I Islami elements (for rocket attacks). It is not clear whether any of these partnerships are continuing and whether the collapse of the security apparatus in Kabul on August 15 allowed ISKP to move into Kabul in sufficient (and sufficiently skilled) forces to operate unaided.
Should the capability be there, ISKP would in all likelihood intensify its campaign to assassinate Taliban cadres, leaders and sympathizers, which it started some time ago. It would also want to embarrass the Taliban with massive indiscriminate attacks, creating tensions between different Taliban factions that are already jockeying for the control of Kabul. Targeting religious minorities, especially Shi’a, also helps ISKP raise funds among radical sectarian donors in the Gulf.
More generally, if ISKP was able to spread terror in the city of Kabul, it would certainly undermine the self-confidence of the Taliban and possibly prompt indiscriminate retaliation, which could in turn drive more recruits towards ISKP. The recent killing of a pro-ISKP cleric, Abu Odaidullah Mutawwakil, who was apparently detained by the Taliban (or rogue Taliban members) some days earlier, already raises the possibility of the Taliban using death squad tactics against ISKP sympathizers. Things would only get worse if ISKP hit the Taliban hard in Kabul. Before the fall of Kabul, there were a couple of ISKP attacks that seemed to be targeting pro-Taliban clerics around Kabul, and also hitting quite indiscriminately at their followers as well.
TM: Will ISKP be a primarily asymmetric force against the Taliban government in Afghanistan or will it also seek to retain some territorial control in Nangarhar or elsewhere?
AG: ISKP currently has a main base in the district of Jurm, in Badakhshan Province, and several small bases elsewhere, primarily in Kunar Province. It still has a small base in Achin, Nangarhar, and has been trying to sneakily reassert some presence in a number of provinces through remote bases or underground cells. Clearly the old strategy of taking on the Taliban with large military attacks has been abandoned for now, and instead ISKP have been preparing for an extensive asymmetric campaign. They need to maintain a few bases around the country for logistical support, command and control, training, and also one big headquarters to host the leadership. So far, they have been reliant on divisions within the Taliban of Badakhshan for keeping the headquarters near Jurm safe. They also have logistical bases and training camps in Pakistan, but they are dependent on the tolerance of the Pakistani authorities to keep those open and reachable. ISKP would probably prefer to be completely autonomous from Pakistan.
In the medium term, the aim of ISKP remains establishing a safe haven in the east— something large and protected enough to potentially become the world headquarters of the Islamic State–because Syria is not a comfortable place to be anymore. ISKP believes that they have great potential in the east as many eastern Taliban are disgruntled and dissatisfied with their leadership, and Salafism is widespread in the region. Especially if U.S. drone and airstrikes against ISKP stopped, massing forces could again become a viable option, given also the absence of a Taliban air force. The difference, however, would be that the Taliban would now be likely able to concentrate their best units against ISKP; in 2019, when the Taliban were for the first time able to deploy a significant number of elite units against ISKP in Nangarhar, they routed it in ISKP’s biggest defeat ever. In the end, ISKP will deploy the tactics that they will deem most suitable in the actual operating environment.
TM: Will there be rivalries between the Taliban rulers, including the top political leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Umar’s son Mawlawi Muhammed Yaqub, the “Commander of the Faithful” Haibatullah Akhundzada, and Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network, or will they remain united in dealing with the diplomatic and internal governance challenges that the Taliban faces?
AG: At present the main fault line is between Haibatullah/Baradar/Yaqub and the southerners in general and the Sirajuddin/Haqqani network because of the latter demanding a disproportionate share of power for their group. In the long run, Yaqub has been aspiring to Haibatullah’s job and there are persistent rumors about the state of Haibatullah’s health.
Then there is tension between Haibtaullah/Baradar/Yaqub and the top military leaders in the south, whose power and influence were increased by the blitzkrieg against Ghani’s government. Abdul Qayum Zakir and Ibrahim Sadar, who were the real engineers of the military campaign, want to have their say on political matters too now.
And the early victories in the north have raised the profile of Salahuddin (head of the north and an Uzbek from the north-west) and Fasihuddin (a Tajik in charge of the north-east). Now their networks want to be represented at the top in Kabul. Similarly, the eastern Taliban are underrepresented, and they say that.
TM: How likely is it that ISKP will attack Chinese interests either in Afghanistan itself or on Chinese territory as ‘punishment’ for its collaboration with the Taliban leadership?
AG: There aren’t many Chinese interests in Afghanistan right now. Surely, however, if the Chinese were to deliver what the Taliban expects of them, which is massive investment in the Afghan economy, they would offer plentiful targets for ISKP a few years down the line. The Chinese would expect the Taliban to put their house in order first and could well provide some help to the new Taliban security sector in order to help them consolidate their hold. Not just ISKP, but any kind of opposition would be a concern. The presence of al-Qaeda-linked groups, including Central Asians and of course some Uyghurs too, is surely something the Chinese would want to see resolved. Nationalist and regionalist opposition groups among Chinese ethnic minorities would represent another cause of concern.
TM: How can the Taliban be expected to balance its diplomatic relations with competing powers, such as Iran, Pakistan, and India, and will Russia be the odd man out in Afghanistan?
AG: The Taliban made a faint attempt to keep India in, possibly to raise their own value in the eyes of the Pakistanis and signal independence. India, however, announced support for the resistance in Panjshir and is now completely out. They are the odd man out.
Pakistan has been strengthening its position recently with its mediation between Taliban factions (through the Inter-Services Intelligence chief in Kabul), possibly aiming at the formation of a government reliant on Pakistan’s brokering to hold together. The Pakistanis might have also expanded their influence by offering direct support to the Taliban in Panjshir with the deployment of drones (although this has not been confirmed by independent sources).
The Iranians have by contrast already publicly vented their frustration with the failure so far of the Taliban to agree to a coalition government with elements of the old political elite (including Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, and others) and they have criticized the offensive in Panjshir. Clearly the Iranians (who had previously mediated deals between Jamiat-e Islami commanders and the Taliban) would like to see their old allies and clients in Afghanistan (the largely Tajik Jamiat-e Islami and the Hazara Hizb-e Wahdat) incorporated into government. They, like the Russians, are concerned by the clout gained by the Haqqani network in Kabul and by rumors that it might gain a high share in the forthcoming Taliban government. They still suspect the Haqqanis of having dealings with ISKP and do not see an Afghan government with a strong Haqqani component as likely to take decisive action against ISKP. In addition, the Haqqanis have long had close relations with Saudi intelligence, a fact that also in all likelihood irks the Iranians, who thought that they had crushed Saudi influence in Afghanistan once and for all.